The Train to Spain

I’m sitting in the Velasquez Bar in Madrid’s Ritz, listlessly twiddling an olive inside my cocktail. It’s not just the eye-watering price of my drink that’s disappointing but the length of time it took to get here, too. I’m the best-part of 24 hours late, having spent a night in Barcelona, en route here from London by train.

I say late, because I travelled a little before a new rail link made it possible to comfortably travel here by rail in the same day. Thanks to the new route, it’s now possible to have breakfast in London, lunch in Paris, dinner in Barcelona and cocktails in Madrid, skipping on and off the train to do so.

All of this should have happened in early 2013 when the high speed lines were completed between Paris and Barcelona. It’s hard to know where to assign the blame for the delays, but suffice to say they were bureaucratic rather than technical in nature. In any case, with hold-ups and transfers at the France-Spain border I had to divide my journey with a night in Catalonia, having set off from London yesterday morning.

As a Brit, to take a culinary journey through Europe is an exercise in humility, so inferior is our food compared to that of our neighbours. Only in the last decade or so, with the incessant rise of cookery TV programs, have we started to care more about what we eat and where it comes from. We are like a lost tribe finally emerging from a deep cave, crawling into the light with suspicious, near-blind eyes.

But through the dark years, we held onto two things: the Sunday roast, and the cooked breakfast. I may sound like a patriotic boob when I say this, but we do those two meals better than any other country on Earth. The French can keep their namby-pamby croissants and overly strong coffee* – there is no finer way to start the day than the British breakfast.

(*If you’re French and reading this, please disregard. I love your coffee.)

The Plum and Spilt Milk, the on-site restaurant of the Great Northern Hotel just outside London’s St Pancras Station, looks too trendy to serve a decent Full English, but the wizards in the kitchen know exactly what they’re doing: don’t swamp the plate poorly presented slop, choose good quality ingredients, don’t have baked beans polluting everything else on the plate. Seventeen pounds is a laughably expensive for eggs, sausage, bacon, tomato, black pudding and mushrooms, but such is life in modern London.

From here it’s only a short waddle to the station and the Eurostar train to Paris. Once on board, the city is quickly left behind, the train shooting through Kent and the unglamorous town of Ashford, before slipping under the Channel and into the world’s longest underwater rail tunnel. It passes so quickly as to seem unremarkable, but it consistently blows my mind that the UK essentially gave up being an island in 1994 when the route opened.

I often imagine that things are wildly different on the other side of the water, but the truth is, before you talk to the people or eat their superior bread, it’s very similar to the south east of England. The land is flat, the sky is low and the countryside is largely unremarkable for quite a long time.

Things start to change an hour or so into France. The farm buildings look more continental and the fields appear as though they have the potential to support grape vines. Then, just two hours and 15 minutes after leaving London, ugly tower blocks herald the outskirts of northern Paris.

The Eurostar service ends at the grand Gare du Nord but the train to Spain departs from the Gare de Lyon towards the south of the city. This opens up dozens or so viable places to take an early lunch. Directly opposite the Gare du Nord is Terminus du Nord, an atmospheric brasserie that appears to have changed little since opening in 1925. Inside it is full of art deco paintings, studded leather chairs and dark wooden tables. At the door and oyster salesman shucks with abandon.

However, I wasn’t anywhere near hungry enough to be eating already, so I walked most of the way to Gare de Lyon. By the time I had an appetite back I found Terminus Lyon and their calorific French onion soup just outside the station. It was quick and delicious, and the restaurant seemed only to employ people determined to undo the stereotype of the pompous Parisian waiter.

The train south from Paris is a double-decker behemoth, the stopping distance for which must be several kilometres. The day I board, half of the train will only go as far as Perpignan in the south of France, with the other continuing to Figueres on the Spanish border. This is where the new line is different – able to continue straight through from Paris directly, shaving time and hassle off the journey.

An hour or two after leaving Paris the landscape begins to change again, with rolling hills bucking up into the sky. Ancient little villages cling to the top of these stumpy peaks. Their tallest building is always a church. And there are vineyards, of course, eternal vineyards as far as the eye can see in almost every direction.

My Gallic reverie was somewhat grounded when the pickpocket warning came over the tannoy at Nimes. An unspoken paranoia settled over the carriage and it felt like we were about to be boarded by masked bandits. Every new passenger was greeted with suspicion.

The infamous mañana attitude of the Spanish is not a myth, but it doesn’t seem to apply to their rail network. National carrier Renfe offers refunds to passengers if they are delayed by more than five minutes, but their dedication to punctuality is such that they are rarely issued. As a result, we arrived in Barcelona precisely on time, with no bandits in sight.

Express trains to Madrid leave from this same station every half an hour, completing the journey in just three hours, yet even with the new line open, there won’t be much time for dallying in the Catalan capital. That said, for dinner there’s no need to suffer the McDonalds inside the cavernous Sants station either.

The surrounding neighbourhood isn’t exactly the city centre, but plenty of restaurants have popped up all the same. Their quality and prices vary wildly, but I was perfectly happy with Martelo, a cheery little tapas joint just a couple of minutes’ walk from the station’s main entrance. They serve all kinds of Spanish dishes – a long list of chorizo (the miniature sausages boiled in cider were maybe the best bite I had on the whole journey), cured meats and olives. Without exploring much, it can be easy to forget that Barcelona is a seaside town, but not looking at the menu. Our waiter tried to recommend the calamari and steamed sea bass as strongly as he could, but, despite his protests, I ordered steamed pigs’ ears.

The Spanish do simple food with effortless perfection, but not these oreja de cerdo. Or perhaps they do – perhaps the mound of fatty flesh cubes sandwiching a layer of chewy cartilage was flawless. But while I am generally keen to try anything put in front of me, I couldn’t imagine a ravenous terrier would be able to finish that entire plate of ears.

And then it was on to Madrid, directly inland, flying through the flat landscape. The new train will mean this journey will almost always take place in darkness, but in truth the view outside is largely uninspiring anyway. The earth appears scorched and barren, only hosting occasional olive groves and abandoned farms. There are just a couple of stops before mighty Madrid, a city that seems to spend much of its day in a stupor before erupting at night. The majority of bars and restaurants don’t open their doors until 8pm, allowing for even the latest arrivals to find somewhere to eat, drink and make merry until dawn. Grey London, a day away by train, where the pubs shut at 10.30pm, may as well be on another planet.


A version of this piece was published in Fairfax’s Traveller in February 2015.

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